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  • Revolution is necessary not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.
  • – Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels

Radical Road – Photo by Ulli Diemer

You don’t walk on water by trying to walk in the middle of the road

Book review by Ulli Diemer

Gentle Patriot: A Political Biography of Walter Gordon
by Denis Smith
Hurtig Publishers; $12.50

As the twilight began to deepen over the hill of Calvary, the little knot of the faithful who stood in the lengthening shadows could see their Teacher weakening. Life was visibly ebbing away from the lonely figure on the cross. With growing despair, they waited for a miracle, a sign, for a least a word from this man Jesus whom they called the Messiah.
And then – as they had almost given up hope, they could see him trying to move his lips, trying to gather strength for a few last words. As they strained to listen, they could hear him whispering, calling out in a weak and cracking voice: “Matthew, Matthew, Math-hew.” The effort had almost been too much for him, but Matthew had heard is Master, and virtually flew to the cross, flinging himself to his knees at its foot. “Yes Master, yes Lord, I am here,” he cried.
“Matthew,” came the feeble voice. “Matthew, I can see your house from up here.”

* * *

So it was with Walter Gordon, the Messiah of Canadian nationalists in the 1960’s, the man who set out resolutely – well, sort of – to drive the American money-changers out of the Canadian temple.

Denis Smith’s Gentle Patriot: A Political Biography of Walter Gordon tries to present a clearer picture of the failed saviour, and to a very limited extent he succeeds. That is, he presents excerpts from Gordon’s personal diaries and notes, as well as various records from the years of the Pearson administration, which make the behind-the-scenes politicking and maneuvering clearer.

But what emerges most plainly from the book is the fact that the public Gordon was essentially the whole Gordon. Gordon the confused wanderer who never strayed beyond being continually outwitted by his opponents, Gordon the bumbler who couldn’t handle himself outside his safe Bay Street office, Gordon the irresolute who continually backed off from his position in the face of pressure: this was the picture the media presented of Gordon during the Pearson years, and this is the picture that Denis Smith, despite his favourable attitude to Gordon, presents. The book would also seem to indicate that Gordon really is as dull and pedantic as he appeared in public life, but it is possible that this is due to the lifeless way in which Denis Smith pushes his pen.

About the only new facts that emerge in the book are those that reveal the unscrupulousness with which the seemingly pure Lester Pearson treated his political colleagues, and especially Gordon. While Pearson was incapable of giving any direction to his cabinet, Parliament, or the country, he did manage to alienate many of his supporters with his machinations and lack of backbone.

Gordon himself was trapped in an ideological morass from which he was incapable of extricating himself, and since, in addition, he lacked the political wiles and ruthlessness necessary for success in Ottawa, his failure was a foregone conclusion.

Although he could see some of the dangers of American domination of the Canadian economy, he was moderate in his response to the point of being without any clear analysis or principles. It wouldn’t do, after all, to discourage American investment in a major way, or to stake out an independent foreign policy for Canada. That would be extremist. The moderates must be appealed to; the businessmen reasoned with.

But unfortunately, the majority of the Canadian business elite was only glad to carve out a little niche for itself in the framework of American hegemony, and regarded Gordon’s ‘moderate’ nationalism as dangerous lunacy. Undaunted, Gordon, a charter member of the Bay Street set, sought to convince them and to implement his ideas by manipulating the levers of government power. Elitist to the core, the idea of a nationalist movement directed by working people against the capitalists, both American and Canadian, was naturally totally foreign to his way of thinking. Yet as Mel Watkins and his cohorts were to realize, independence in Canada was impossible and in any case undesirable without socialism. And as even the Wafflers have largely failed to understand, socialism and therefore independence can be brought about, not by the election of, say, a Waffle party, more nationalist and more socialist than the NDP, to pass the necessary legislation, but only by the activity of a mass movement that sees the struggle against American imperialism as merely a necessary component of the basic effort to bring about socialism.

For Gordon, however, the only legitimate and only possible vehicle of political action was understandably enough the Liberal Party. All else was extremism and politically unrealistic. So Gordon, the realist, worked through the Liberal party with its historical dedication to playing junior partner in the American-dominated status quo. And when he became sufficiently frustrated, he left the government, disillusioned. Although he was as close to the workings of the economy as anyone, he came away none the wiser, with no clearer perspective than when he arrived. He continues to repeat his earlier views, with no hint of seeing any contradiction between advocating independence and defending the corporate capitalist economy which makes dependence on the US inevitable.

If it is impossible to resolve contractions in Gordon’s thought (as Smith admits), it should at least be possible to present his career and ideas in a stimulating fashion. Smith has failed to do this, and the fault is not entirely that of Gordon’s blandness and inconsistency. The book is dull and uninterestingly written, and at $12,50, not worth the price.

First published in The Varsity, March 15, 1974.